Close this search box.

Term limits, an obstacle to structural transformation in Africa

Change should not be an opportunity to set in motion the harmful game of musical chairs, which characterizes political systems that have term limits in most parts of Africa

The greatest challenge for leadership in Africa is its inability to control the domestic policy space. The policy space, to a varying extent, has been infiltrated by presumably benevolent outsiders. Even when policy prescriptions from outsiders have appeared good and well intentioned, there is always some ‘unintended consequence’ that often cancels out any positive aspects and renders the entire set of prescriptions harmful.

Give with one hand and take away with the other

Consider term limits, a key component of the package of liberal democracy as prescribed by the West. The idea that, for a political system to be considered legitimate, people should be able to choose their leader through elections, is laudable. This makes elections – the direct or indirect participation of the people in choosing who leads them – an important marker of an enlightened society. Therefore, people’s ability to exercise their power through the ballot is something that all societies ought to aspire for. Thus, African leaders are doing the right thing when they hold regular elections, whether these are held as a result of prescriptions from outside, or an organic initiative. This is the hand that gives.

Then comes the hand that takes: term limits. It is incontestable that a mediocre, incompetent, leader is easier to find than a good, competent one. This is true for whatever level of leadership. Mediocre leaders are everywhere. Hence, the probability of randomly selecting a mediocre leader rather than an exceptional one is infinitely higher. It appears that when a good leader emerges, society should hold on to him or her until circumstances dictate otherwise – like the Germans did with Angela Merkel, the Singaporeans with Lee Kwan Yew and, before them, the Americans with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

However, term limits undermine progress at great cost to society. They do not allow an exceptional leader to create meaningful change in people’s lives because they are unlikely to allow good leaders sufficient time to effect the necessary structural transformation. Instead, they create a situation where mediocre leaders are allowed to seize an opportunity that would otherwise be ringfenced for the exceptional members of society. In most cases, mediocre leaders reverse the little progress achieved by an exceptional leader during his or her short mandate. In other words, term limits are preferable in contexts where only cosmetic change – the kind that preserves the status quo at the level of substance – is desirable, as is the case in most economically advanced Western societies.

If the most enduring challenge Africa faces is economic transformation that lifts people out of debilitating poverty, then term limits can be a tool for preserving the status quo of impoverishment. That is because the sustained economic transformation needed for this kind of change requires a certain level of policy continuity and political stability.

These are not possible since a long-term policy horizon is not possible in a situation where every five years or so a new leadership emerges with its own agenda, priorities and executors. It is not surprising that groups seeking to displace incumbents conceive their mission as asserting that it is “our turn to eat”, suggesting that they do not envisage having the requisite time horizon to pursue structural transformation, if at all they see that as part of their mission, that is. In other words, the disruption that is occasioned by term limits can be anti-development, a significant factor in fomenting economic instability and, invariably, political crisis. Term limits are, therefore, potentially the greatest obstacle to achieving two central objectives of political leadership: political and economic stability. In this way, term limits cancel out whatever good is in the package of liberal democracy.

Ironically, liberal democracy was prescribed to Africa from the late 1980s, as an antidote for the economic and political crises that rocked the continent from the 1960s to the late 1980s, during the Cold War.

The limits of term limits

Term limits are exhibit A in the argument that liberal democracy is an elite project. They bring stability among the elite who seek political power by ensuring that instead of turning to violence to oust a leader, they can turn to waiting him out; time becomes their preoccupation. However, this preoccupation removes the moral aims of holding power; rather than nurturing a political culture based on the substance of democracy – improving people’s lives – the elite engage in cosmetic change where the objective of leadership is akin to the game of musical chairs. A leader is assessed not on what they did while in office but on whether they stepped aside after their term in office.

As a result of these limitations, democracy is reduced to symbols rather than its effect on people’s lives. In the process, structural transformation is left to happen as an accident of history, as the status quo prevails.

This symbolism has worked in the West because there was no urgency for structural transformation due to the history of exploitation that is often mispresented as one of good governance. But even in the West, this arrangement is under extreme scrutiny, coincidentally at a time when more countries around the world move to reassert sovereign control over – and make the most out of – their natural resources.

In the African context, the harm from term limits would be minimised in a situation where a political system ensures that only candidates with the right attributes are allowed to enter the political contest. In Africa, countries like Tanzania – and to a corrupt extent South Africa – have attempted to create such a system that grooms young leaders over the years and promote those who demonstrate leadership qualities in the different positions assigned to them through their careers. Only under this arrangement do term limits make sense because there is a wider pool from which potentially excellent leaders can emerge.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in Africa the political contexts in which term limits have not impeded stability and policy continuity have been those characterized by a dominant ruling party such as South Africa and Tanzania. Without the challenges posed by term limits, it’s quite astonishing that the leadership in both countries has not taken advantage of these particular circumstances to spearhead the kind of economic transformation that is needed on the continent.

As things stand, the advantages of term limits are far outweighed by the disadvantages. True, term limits ensure that a bad leader is removed before they do a lot of damage. Bad leaders have exploited the absence of term limits to indefinitely impose their rule on societies that needed competent hands to steer them out of poverty and into socio-economic transformation. As Ambassador Ngoga has argued, the quest for electoral justice, which has everything to do with the credibility of elections and nothing to do with the longevity of a leader,  would partially address this issue, as citizens would be allowed to sanction mediocrity.

However, the objective of change ought to go beyond removing the bad leader. Change should not be an opportunity to set in motion the harmful game of musical chairs, which characterizes political systems that have term limits in most parts of Africa. Otherwise, the struggle for change and the instability it creates would reproduce the old problem in a new form and nurture feelings of nostalgia for the very regimes for which liberal democracy was prescribed as an antidote.

Meanwhile, just as the failures of the structural adjustment programmes of the 1990s were placed on poor leadership that was too deficient (intellectually and morally) to execute a “good” plan; the failure to transform African societies is placed on incapacity by African leaders to execute democracy.

But, now as then, the question remains who controls the policy space. On this, African leaders ought to not accept to exercise partial control. Either they give it all up or retain all of it. The danger of stopping halfway is that even the half-control in their possession shall be compromised by the half whose control is in foreign hands.

Africans must also reject the shadow of illegitimacy that hovers around exceptional leaders at the helm of societies that have seen the light and shunned term limits as a sacrosanct feature of democracy or good governance.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Support The Pan African Review.

Your financial support ensures that the Pan-African Review initiative achieves sustainability and that its mission is shielded from manipulation. Most importantly, it allows us to bring high-quality content free of charge to those who may not be in a position to afford it.

You Might Also Like